A group of asylum-seekers from Cameroon facing deportation back to their conflict-ridden country say they were pressured with force by U.S. immigration officers to sign their deportation paperwork, and that they and a slew of others facing an imminent return flight are at risk of persecution and death.
The eight men recounted their experiences in a complaint filed by a number of immigrant advocate groups including the Southern Poverty Law Center with the Department of Homeland Security’s Office of Civil Rights and Civil Liberties.
“Officers grabbed me, forced me on the ground, and pepper sprayed my eyes. They handcuffed me,” said a man identified in the complaint as C.A., who went on to add that an officer broke his finger.
“I was crying, ‘I need to talk to my attorney,’ and I said, ‘They are going to kill me.'”
The man said his fingerprint was forced onto the paperwork needed for his deportation back to Cameroon. The other men’s stories followed similar lines.
The SPLC provided the man’s full name and identification number, as well as another man’s in the complaint to The Associated Press so that specific queries could be made to Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
Bryan Cox, a spokesman for ICE, said the agency “does not comment on specific matters presented to the Office of the Inspector General, which provides independent oversight and accountability within the U.S. Department of Homeland Security. That said, in general, sensationalist unsubstantiated allegations are irresponsible, and should be treated with the greatest of skepticism.”
The men had been in detention in Mississippi, but they have all since been transferred to Prairieland Detention Center in Alvarado, Texas, said Luz Lopez, senior supervising attorney at the SPLC’s Immigration Justice Project.
There, they have joined at least 100 other asylum seekers and potentially up to 200 people for what Lopez said is believed to be a chartered flight, the first in months, that would head to the African nation.
The idea of returning has the asylum seekers, many of whom are saying they face torture or worse in their homeland, very frightened, Lopez said.
“Folks are terrified to go back, they know they’ll either disappear or be murdered,” she said.
It was unclear when the flight would depart, but advocates said the flight may have already left by Tuesday evening, the same day the process of moving people from the detention center to the plane appeared to have started. ICE has not confirmed whether the flight has taken off.
Katie Shepherd of the American Immigration Council said authorities told her that two men, including C.A., had been pulled from the flight on Tuesday afternoon.
ICE does not confirm removals until after they’ve taken place.
Rep. Bennie Thompson of Mississippi, chairman of the House Committee on Homeland Security, and Rep. Karen Bass of California, both Democrats, sent a letter to ICE on Tuesday.
They urged ICE to investigate the allegations of abuse and other concerns before any action is taken regarding the detained asylum seekers.
Asylum-seeking Cameroonians, who are escaping bloodshed that has killed tens of thousands, are mostly English speakers fleeing torture inflicted by a French-speaking government as well as English-speaking separatists. Many share personal accounts of Cameroonian soldiers burning their villages, shooting indiscriminately and torturing any perceived opponents.
Cameroonians began arriving at the U.S. border with Mexico in large numbers last year. They typically flew to Ecuador and traveled by foot and on bus through eight countries. Many died, were assaulted or got robbed in the Panamanian jungle.
Cameroonians have fared extremely well in U.S. immigration courts, with 80% winning asylum claims in the U.S. government’s 2019 fiscal year, compared to a 29% success rate for all nationalities, according to Syracuse University’s Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse. Their success rate fell to 53% for the 11-month period that ended Aug. 31, compared to 26% for all nationalities.
It is unclear why the Cameroonians described in the complaint are being flown home by the U.S. government but many from the African nation have been denied permission to stay in the United States under new policies that have put asylum virtually out of reach.
In June, a federal judge in Washington, D.C., knocked down a cornerstone policy of the Trump administration that denied asylum to people who travel through other countries to reach the U.S. border with Mexico without first seeking protection in those countries. The Justice Department is appealing.
The ruling’s impact was diminished by a pandemic-related measure introduced in March — also being challenged in court — to quickly expel people who cross the border illegally and block asylum-seekers at official crossings. The administration has relied on a little-known public health law designed to prevent the spread of disease.